Closure of meat plants due to coronavirus means ‘depopulation’ of hens and pigs with methods experts say are inhumane, despite unprecedented demand at food banks
The pig industry is facing a major glut of market-ready hogs. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty
More than 10 million hens are estimated to have been culled due to Covid-19 related slaughterhouse shutdowns. The majority will have been smothered by a water-based foam, similar to fire-fighting foam, a method that animal welfare groups are calling “inhumane”.
The pork industry has warned that more than 10 million pigs could be culled by September for the same reason. The techniques used to cull pigs include gassing, shooting, anaesthetic overdose, or “blunt force trauma”.
In “constrained circumstances”, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), techniques [pdf] might also include a combination of shutting down pig barn ventilator systems with the addition of CO2 so the animals suffocate.
The ‘depopulation’ comes despite food banks across the US reporting unprecedented demand and widespread hunger during the pandemic, with six-mile-long queues for aid forming at some newly set up distribution centres.
The American meat supply chain has been hit hard by the closure of slaughterhouses, due to Covid-19 infection rates among workers. 30 to 40 plants have closed, which means that in the highly consolidated US system beef and pork slaughtering capacity has been cut by 25% and 40% respectively, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).
The closures have meant that animals cannot be killed for food and many must instead be culled, or “depopulated” at home.
10 million hens have already been culled due to slaughterhouse shutdowns. Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA
More pigs to be ‘depopulated’
As it is comparatively easier to keep cattle on farms, cow culls do not appear to be an issue as yet, and the chicken cull may have peaked, said Adam Speck, an agribusiness analyst with IHS Markit.
“[Cattle] could stay on ranches another six months if necessary. The peak of the chicken cull has passed for now. North of about 10 million chickens were depopulated, either at the chick or egg stage,” Speck said.
At the hen stage, Leah Garcés, president of US welfare organisation Mercy for Animals, said it is hard to be sure of the numbers. But, “what we know with certainty is that 2 million meat chickens [and] 61,000 laying hens”, have been killed on farms.
Compared with poultry, said Garcés, stopping or slowing the production cycle of pigs is harder, mainly because pig growing periods are about six months compared to six weeks for hens. “Pregnancies had already been set in motion when the slaughterhouse closures occurred,” she said, and pigs were already in the system.
The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) has estimated that: “up to 10,069,000 market hogs will need to be euthanised between the weeks ending on 25 April and 19 September 2020, resulting in a severe emotional and financial toll on hog farmers”.
The peak of the chicken cull has passed, experts said, but pigs may now need to be ‘depopulated’ in large numbers. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA
For pig culls, AVMA “preferred methods” include injectable anaesthetic overdose, gassing, shooting with guns or bolts, electrocution and manual blunt force trauma. AVMA methods “permitted in constrained circumstances” include ventilator shutdown (VSD), potentially combined with carbon dioxide gassing, and sodium nitrite which would be ingested by pigs.
Speaking more graphically, Garcés said manual blunt force trauma can mean slamming piglets against the ground while VSD would “essentially cook the pigs alive”.
Asked to estimate numbers of pigs that have already been culled, Speck said producers are very reluctant to depopulate. “About two million might have been culled so far due to the Covid-19 pandemic, over the last six or so weeks.”
Speck added that with slaughterhouses likely to return to 85% capacity by the end of May, the NPPC’s depopulation estimate of 10 million pigs could be significantly reduced.
Speck said breeders are thinning herds and slowing growth to reduce pig supply. “They are sending breeding sows to slaughter, aborting pregnant sows on a small scale and [keeping market-bound pigs] on maintenance style rations with less protein. Coming into the summer months the pigs will also gain weight more slowly as the weather heats up.”
Methods are ‘inhumane’
Asked about growth slowdown, Garcés said it posed other welfare risks. “One method to slow down growth is to turn the heat up inside of the warehouses beyond the pigs ‘comfort zone’ because pigs eat less when they are too hot,” she said.
The combination of feed restrictions and higher barn temperatures, she said, mean pigs are “hungry and hot, increasing their overall discomfort, which is already high in a factory farm setting”.
Many farmers now face having to cull market-ready pigs. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
In what appears to be an attempt by the industry to reduce any negative depopulation impact, a blog managed by the National Pork Board called Real Pig Farming offers social media sharing tips for farmers. The blog suggests farmers: “Think twice before engaging with posts that show what may be happening on farms right now.”
It said: “Most people do not understand the complexity of raising pigs and getting pork from the farm to their table. That means, “[a] good rule of thumb is to speak to a level a third grader [eight to 10 years old] would understand to ensure that things are not taken out of context.”
NPPC spokesperson Jim Monroe said that as of the week ending on 15 May, less than 25% of overall slaughter capacity was idled and the situation was improving. Monroe, added that the “tragic need to euthanise animals is to prevent animal suffering.”
For poultry, culling options are no easier. Filling sheds with carbon dioxide gas is one method, said Kim Sturla, director of welfare organisation Animal Place. Another cull method, she said, is to smother hens with water-based foam, similar to firefighting foam. Water-based foaming is categorised as the “preferred” method by the AVMA.
Previously asked about water-based foaming and other cull methods such VSD, an AVMA spokesperson said depopulation decisions were difficult and “and contingent upon several factors, such as the species and number of animals involved, available means of animal restraint, safety of personnel, and other considerations such as availability of equipment, agents and personnel”.
European campaigners said firefighting foam causes prolonged suffering. Although risks of similar livestock culls appear low in Europe so far, welfare group, Compassion in World Farming advised using foam that contains nitrogen gas because death is faster.
A 2019 European Food Safety Authority journal report said it did not find water-based or firefighting foam acceptable because “death due to drowning in fluids or suffocation by occlusion of the airways” is not seen as “a humane method for killing animals, including poultry”.
Family of worker at a South Yorkshire food processor with multiple Covid-19 cases and three deaths have criticised treatment of staff
The Cranswick processing plant at Wombwell, South Yorkshire. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
The South Yorkshire meat processing plant where three workers have died from coronavirus has been criticised for failing to adequately protect workers.
Three workers at a Cranswick food processing facility in Wombwell, Barnsley, which supplies UK supermarkets, are confirmed to have died after testing positive for coronavirus.
The UK-based company, which has annual revenue approaching £1.5bn, said there had been nine confirmed cases at the Wombwell plant, with one worker currently in hospital. The most recent confirmed case was on 11 May.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the family of a worker at the plant said staff had initially been told that social distancing in some parts of the factory was not possible, that they couldn’t wear face masks “because they would be taking them away from the NHS”, and that any staff off sick only got statutory sick pay.
“If you don’t feel well and know if you don’t go to work you’re only going to get the statutory sick pay [£95.85 a week] and are not going to be able to pay the bills, what are you going to do? I am scared he could bring it home to us and our kids. They [plant workers] have not been happy, but they’re all scared to say anything because of losing their jobs. It’s a shit way to go for £9 an hour [worker is paid £9.40 an hour].”
Meat plants across the world are grappling with serious coronavirus outbreaks. The US has been hardest hit, with confirmed cases at more than 200 meat and food processing plants and the death of at least 66 workers. There have also been clusters of cases at meat plants in France, Germany and Ireland, where more than 500 workers have tested positive.
Giving evidence to MPs yesterday, Ian Wright, the CEO of the Food and Drink Federation, said although the UK food sector had not experienced major infection rates, it had seen “a couple of relative hotspots”. Labour MP Geraint Davies said data from the Office for National Statistics up to and including 20 April has found that plant workers in England and Wales were almost six times more likely die from Covid-19 than the average worker.
The family of the staff member said the Wombwell site had not been closed for a deep clean after the workers’ deaths as has been the case in Ireland, and that social distancing was only properly implemented in the canteen area in the past week. “It’s really hard and physical work, the plant has been busier than ever and there’s not a lot of scope for social distancing when they’re on the factory floor.”
The GMB union, which has some members at the Wombwell plant, said it was “ready to work with the company and our members at the site to review operations, and identify any issues that could impact on the safety of our members”.
Meat being processed at a Cranswick plant in Milton Keynes. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters
A spokesperson for Cranswick said it had rigorous cleaning procedures ongoing throughout the day and that the plant was sanitised at night. Social distancing had been in place in the plant since the middle of March and, in production areas where a 2m gap between people was not possible, the company had put in shielding screens or provided visors. Staff are entitled to contracted or statutory sick pay depending on their individual circumstances.
The spokesperson went on to say that while the company may initially have said it couldn’t get face masks due to NHS demands, they now had visors available for anyone who wanted to use them. Some canteen seats had been taped off with additional space provided and the company had now started sourcing single-seat tables. Equipment to temperature-check staff was also being installed this week.
“Why are they now implementing things this far into it after the deaths have happened and we’ve had the risk?” said the worker’s family.
Nick Allen, the CEO of the British Meat Processors Association, said the initial guidance provided by the government was “fairly minimal”, but that it had started issuing its own industry guidelines to members at the end of March. “This [social distancing] was something that had not been done before and has been a steep learning curve. There has been a considerable effort to get it right.”
Labour MP Geraint Davies, who sits on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee, said safe social distancing and PPE for all meat plant workers needed to be made legally enforceable. “If you work in a plant and fear for your personal safety, but realise there is a queue of people outside who will take your job now they’re unemployed, you’re left with an impossible choice. The government needs to ensure workers’ safety.”
Cranswick said in a statement: “The health and safety of all of our colleagues is our number one priority and we are doing everything we can to protect our workforce. Sadly, three of our colleagues have passed away with Covid-19. Our thoughts and condolences are with their families and we are providing full support to them and to all of our colleagues directly affected by Covid-19.
“From the outset of the pandemic, we have followed all governmental and regulatory guidance, in many cases going beyond the guidelines provided. We have evolved our practices and implemented additional measures to protect our colleagues including social distancing as far as practical, regular deep cleaning at our sites, visors and recommended PPE for all employees in line with the Public Health England and World Health Organization guidelines.
“All colleagues have been told not to attend work if they, or anyone they live with, have any symptoms. Cranswick employees are designated key workers and are at the forefront of maintaining vital supplies of fresh food into the supermarkets. We continue to do everything we can to protect them while they carry out this critical role.”
..can’t read this about this horror anymore..
as a cruelty-free vegan..
love animals more than humans..
..I have a physical reaction
affects me a great deal..
..I don’t understand anyone who can harm an animal..
much less eat them..
..hunting/slaughtering/wearing/exploiting/killing them is beyond comprehension
to my soul ..